Changed plan fatigue, forecasting future(s), and finding the present
Changed Plan Fatigue
I was on the phone with my mom recently, talking about an upcoming trip she had planned to come to Colorado to visit my brother and me. While she’d been looking forward to the trip, she shared that she didn’t want to make any concrete plans. She was exhausted, she shared, from all the times over the past year and a half that she’d had to change or cancel plans at the last minute – due to rising COVID-19 rates, my own COVID-19 diagnosis a year back, my dad’s work schedule shifting at the last minute. Changed plan fatigue, I declared. We have changed plan fatigue from the constant toil of mental calculus we’ve had to do during the pandemic.
Will we be able to see one another or not? Is it safe to gather today? Tomorrow? Will it be safe to gather in a couple of months? For whom? How can we know? Should we cancel the event? Should we go hybrid? Will the pandemic subside sufficiently for the conference in 2 months? That wedding?
What if we wait a little longer? What if?
All this decisioning around safety, with so little (and too much) information, is exhausting. Fatiguing.
Changed plan fatigue. The exhaustion of not knowing what we can plan for anymore, with an incessant desire for something, anything to go as we’d hoped. Changed plan fatigue has become our collective, wearying, ceaseless reality. And it seems it will be for the foreseeable future.
Future(s) Forecasting amidst Fatigue and Uncertainty
Alongside this expanse of ruminative daily decision-making, I’ve been marinating in a newfound foresight practice via the Social Work Health Futures Lab. While personally and professionally treading the waters of near-term uncertainty, I’ve been sharpening my practice for longer term futures planning. The sweet spot, I am learning, is 10-year foresight practice. Enough distance for enough change; not so much that we can’t imagine and plan for it. Every year, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) gathers for a ten-year forecast to collectively imagine how the future(s) of critical topics may be shaped over the next decade, based on present signals and drivers. In our fellowship meetings, we have been collecting signals, deliberatively centering justice and equity as we focus on future(s) of topics like the climate crises, anti-racism, and artificial intelligence. It has been inspiring (and at times, mind-bending) to see how other fellows in the room bring their expertise to imagine and plan for the future(s) where, for example, the climate crisis has led us to rely on subsistence farming again, or police forces are accompanied by robot dogs. In some futures we (humans) are more connected than ever – and in many others, inequities and access continues to drive us apart.
And yet, to be honest, turning my head back and forth between the uncertain near future with the even more uncertain 10-year future can feel like whiplash. How am I supposed to imagine the world (and my life) in 2031 when I don’t even know if I will be able to gather with my family for the holidays due to the ever-mutating COVID-19 virus and too-low vaccination rates? How are we supposed to imagine 2031 when our world, today, is unimaginably different than it was just 2 years ago?
Is it possible that signals, like the virus raging across our entire world, are mutating at a startling pace, leaving us with little ability to know where to turn and how to plan? When one month feels like 10 years’ worth of news? How might our foresight practices adapt to respond to an ever-increasing pace of change underfoot? Could they? Should they?
I am dizzy. I am tired.
When the whiplash gets to be too much – when near term futures and 10-year futures and the ever-scrolling cycle of new signals feels too heavy to bear – I return to the present.
Perhaps, if you’re like me, the present is a harder place to settle. The present is a gnawing thing – suddenly gone when we’ve barely begun to hold it.
So, I’ve been trying to hold it with a stronger grasp. Walks around the block. Watercolor abstracts. Stirring risotto on the stove. Roundish things, with a shape I can recognize and wrap my brain around.
In fact, I have been wondering if we cannot meaningfully engage futures unless we find presence. Drawing upon the trauma-informed concept of a window of tolerance, I have found it is near-impossible to ‘do’ futures work (near term, far term) unless I am grounded enough to truly show up. Sometimes, that means listening into the world around me, and other times, it means turning off the news – getting of Twitter – turning inwards, versus out. Stifling the whiplash by looking towards one thing at a time – behind, aside, ahead – just one at once.
In a time when nothing feels certain, I can at least be certain of now.
And once I’ve settled here a little while, I can think ahead – to tomorrow, and to ten years.
In the present, I am breathing.
Now, I am here.
Now, we can begin.
Written by Danielle Littman
Danielle Maude Littman is a community-engaged scholar and multidisciplinary artist getting her PhD in Social Work at the University of Denver. She studies belonging, place, and collective care among young people and communities enduring marginalization and oppression. Her work in the Lab focuses on the future of third places (community settings) and mutual aid, and the integration of arts-based approaches in social work research and practice.